Published 15 June 1997 Style Magazine 206th article
Winging it: Michael Winner and feathered friends at the Holland Park Cafeteria (Nick Mead)
On May 3, 1875, the Victorian architect Norman Shaw wrote to the renowned painter Sir Luke Fildes: "I do heartily congratulate you on having got such a delicious site." This was on the angle of Melbury Road with a view of Kensington High Road to the south, Addison Road to the west, and the park of Holland House on the other two sides.
Shortly thereafter, Sir Luke's grandmother died. Her final benefaction was to leave him all she had. This was enough for Fildes to build a fine house, the central feature being a triumphal staircase leading up to his studio, which Edward VII called "one of the finest rooms in London".
That is now my bedroom. I have lived in the house since 1947. In a biography of his father. Sir Luke's son writes: "A many buttressed wall of great age [still there] was the Eastern boundary. Every day at milking time, with mooings and tinkling of bells, cows came along the lane down to Tunk and Tisdall's dairy in the High Road [gone], squirrels, owls and peacocks from Holland House visited the garden." They still do.
Holland House itself is a Jacobean mansion, resting in acres of parkland. It was bomb-damaged during the war. It could have been restored, but with the new-world fervour of the post-war years it was torn down; only a small part of it remains. As a child, I would climb into Holland Park, a vast overgrown area of trees with the ruined mansion in the middle. It was protected by its Owner, Lord Ilchester, who despised all development. But on his death in the mid-1950s, his successors encouraged building. The park eventually landed up with the Kensington and Chelsea council.
It boasts two restaurants. The Belvedere, a disaster for decades, was taken over three years ago by Johnny Gold, owner of Tramp, who has done a fine job in making it popular. On warm Saturdays, Mr Terence O'Neill and I can often be viewed lunching with Mr G on the terrace.
The other restaurant is the Holland Park Cafeteria. This also has its admirers. The singer Van Morrison has been seen there, as has Joanna Lumley and many other glitterati. I have lived a few paces away for 25 years of the caff's life, but until recently I bad never set foot in it (it is self-service and I get irritated with my serving abilities), even though the Italian family who run it are much praised in the neighbourhood. It was time to give it a try.
It resides in a wooden hut, approached under old brick arches. Inside there are simple tables. Outside dark wooden ones with heavy chairs face the park; others rest in a strange area at the back. There is a display of robust rolls with ham, cheese and lettuce, a variety of biscuits and cakes, and a menu of hot dishes. You order, get a small ticket, and wait for a waitress to call your number. You respond and she gives you food.
I grabbed a chocolate-covered florentine biscuit on the way in (very nice) and chose spaghetti bolognaise. My co-luncher, a young screenwriter, Nicholas Mead, ordered baked potato with chilli con carne. I forgot to pay, which sent the owner's wife into gales of laughter. The place is now run by a young couple, Mike Quaia and his Burmese wife, Yvonne. Shortly after my arrival Yvonne and Mike had a row and she walked off in a huff.
"I do hope it's nothing to do with me," I said as Mike pointed to her trotting through the trees in high dudgeon. He assured me it was not. My spaghetti was fine, as was Nick's potato and chilli. I was slightly put off by pigeons landing like vultures on every vacated table to eat the leftovers, and children screaming and running about before their parents hauled them away. Then a man walking by with headphones stopped and said over the fence: "Every film you have ever made is about me. I don't want to talk about it because you'll think I'm a nutter. But you'll soon find out."
This did not put me off my flapjack and sickly twister dessert. Even though Mike told me "Our frozen yoghurt and sorbets are the best", they weren't on that day.
"Pity you missed the soup," he added.
"Is that better than the sorbet?" I asked.
Mike thought. "Depends on the vegetables," he replied.
At that point I found Mike's wife sitting at a table under an arch and persuaded her to join us for a photograph. They seemed quite together after that. I'm food genius and marriage guidance counsellor. Who could possibly ask for more?
On Friday, May 30, my boyfriend and I had dinner at the People's Palace restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall, in London. This is not an experience we are likely to repeat. Around midnight, shortly before we paid our bill, a woman at a nearby table stood on her chair and began a loud high-pitched squealing. Several other women followed suit. Unable to work out what was going on, we wrote our (not inconsiderable) cheque. Shortly afterwards, I caught sight of the reason for the hullabaloo: a mouse was dashing across the room. We headed for the reception area. "You do realise that you have a mouse in the restaurant," I said to a member of staff. "Yes, madam," he replied. "Sorry about that. We know it can be terribly off-putting." So casual was his tone, he might almost have been describing a regular, but difficult, customer. More significantly, he did not offer to give us a refund. This seemed odd. Haven't restaurants been closed down for less?
Emma Goodson, London SW4
Would someone please tell Michael Winner the meaning of the word vegetarian? In a recent article, he revealed how Vanessa's vegetarian sensibilities were offended by the sight of raw meat being prepared at Josy-Jo in Cagnes-sur-Mer (Style, May 18) - yet in the very next paragraph she was happily tucking in to a plate of calamari. To describe her as a vegetarian is not only erroneous, but does a huge disservice to true "veggies" like myself, who eat neither fish nor meat. As it is, many restaurants seem to think that the likes of poached salmon, seared tuna and bouillabaisse are suitable for inclusion in the vegetarian section of their menus. Mr Winner's ill-informed comments do not help.
Phoebe Simon, London N1